Why Speakers Shouldn’t Be Paid

Hey there, about to stick my head up here and get shot at, but I had some interesting converstaions this weekend and feel like someone should post them.

Conference speakers should not be paid.

Woah.  Back down tiger.  Let me explain a bit more before you finish sharpening your pitchforks.

I’ve been to quite a few conferences.  I can cut a line down the conference sessions I have enjoyed the most- paid vs. not paid.  The reason?  I find most paid speakers do the speaking circuit.  If I am really excited about the speaker (you are paying for a conference) you check them out online. What do you find?  The speech you are about to see.

That is lame.

“But I love the community.” one paid speaker told me at BlogWorld.

I do too.  Ever come to this conference before you were paid to?

“No.”

Cool, to get this straight, you deserve to be paid to give a speech that isn’t customized for the audience, to a group that you wouldn’t be a part of unless you were paid to.

I like speakers that are passionate community members.  Ever hear this: “I learn more in the hallways of conferences than in the sessions?”  Perhaps that is because the people in the hallways are part of the community and are passionate about being there.  Wouldn’t it be cool if the speakers were just as hungry?

Now the disclosures, I do think it is fair to have their costs covered (flight, hotel).  If they are a pro speaker, they should be paid as that is what they do, and they are worth it.  If they are going to sell a unit shit ton of tickets, they deserve to be paid, but I would argue you are paying them for that in the situation, not speaking.

Pro bloggers don’t just write the same post 40 times, now do they?

Give me a conference of passion players any day.  I would watch every single speaker.

  • Passion can only get you so far. Being good to talk to in the hallway doesn't make a person good in front of 1500 people. Also, the audience for different conferences is a wide spread between BoCo / TED / Gnomedex (a mid-size group of friends hanging out) and Conferences like BlogWorld where hundreds or thousands of neophytes are coming to learn the basics. People want to learn from someone proven, established, recognizable, not just someone who's excited about the topic. SXSW core conversations are a better venue for the excited and unproven than trying to run a big conference without big names.

    Jeremy

  • I have to admit – I most agree.

    Mainly because I am now official spoiled by barcamps… for the most part I find it rare that the speaker is any better or useful than the guy/gal I just met in the hallway or brainstormed w at barcamp.

    The only time though I have not found that to be true is conferences that are tutorial in nature. I really really want a paid trainer/speaker for those like the catalyst conference. I do want someone that has done the prezo more than once…

  • Preach brother Andrew!

  • I agree – get me there, let me in, give me someplace to sleep, and I'm a happy speaker.

  • firewallender

    I dunno, Andrew, I think I'm with Jeremy on this one. Painting paying speakers as a bad idea is a bit too broad. And this is coming from someone who loves the unconference community and is on the BarCamp Seattle organizing team.

    First of all, time is money, and you're taking this person's time. Just because they need to go home at the end of the weekend and pay a mortgage or put their kids through school doesn't mean they aren't passionate about a subject. If a person's good at sharing information and they want to share that information and people would pay to hear that information, why not pay them to do it? It's not selling out just because you're paid – it's enabling the person to do something that everyone wants them to do. It's a win-win situation. As soon as it's not a win-win situation, that speaker stops filling seats. The market adjusts itself. We pay for things when we feel they bring us value.

    And who cares if they've said it 40 times? Students pay teachers to say the same things they said to the class before them every year. If the speaker's doing a bad job or coming off as uninterested in their own subject matter, you can bet people will be not excited to see them and vote with their feet.

    The unconference model is great – but, they each have their own strengths. You don't have to pay with your money, but you're expected to pay with your involvement – come more prepared to share something interesting just like those around you. You don't get a guarantee that the speakers are going to talk well, or on something you find fascinating, because it's not public information before you come. But, a little uncertainty is a fair trade for the awesomeness you're *probably* going to find in some of the sessions.

    Different people enjoy the different approaches. I enjoy both. It's like the difference between trading baseball cards and buying comics. We don't need to dislike one to enjoy the other.

  • andrewhyde

    Good people doing interesting things have a track record of preforming, knowing you have a speech can force you to practice and get really good.

    You are spot on, just wish there was some more innovation in conferences these days.

  • andrewhyde

    I think that is key, we are spoiled by some really, really good conferences.

    If the audience is really looking for basics, then I think smaller groups are the best way of teaching them… there has to be better ways!

  • andrewhyde

    Great seeing you this weekend!

  • andrewhyde

    Love your comment.

    I'm not against paying spears at all, I'm against the dogpile of every social media consultant demanding payment without bringing things to the table.

    That, I think, is my biggest gripe. Go to conferences and the people you see the most not attending anything are the people doing the most amazing things. The content is uninteresting and bland. Public enemy #1 of this is the paid mediocre repeat speaker.

    Or so I thought this morning.

    Love your last comment. There is room for a lot of types / ways to do a conference. What I like everyone else doesn't… but I have to keep wondering how to make things great 🙂

  • firewallender

    “I'm against the dogpile of every social media consultant demanding payment without bringing things to the table.”

    Totally agree. One joy of paying for something is you totally have the right to likewise fire their arse if they are doing a terrible job. I'd say if you run into these types of speakers, be sure to give feedback (in a kind, constructive criticism sort of way, of course) to the event organizer so they know not to bring those people back.

  • I've been on the planning committee for the University of Colorado-Boulder's Conference on World Affairs. Every year the conference gets an impressive mix of experts who come for free. They are housed at local homes and are provided their meals for the week (via their hosts, lunches at the conference, and meals at parties), but they are not paid to come or even given money to cover their transportation here.

    So it can happen.

    On the other hand, as writers are getting less and less from magazines and book publishing, they being told to make up the financial difference by selling themselves as speakers at conferences. So that's why the push for getting paid to speak.

  • I have this horrible feeling each time I go to a conference that I've paid to attend that I *should* attend sessions because that's what I've paid for. As a result, I've often elected to not attend a session of a good, or great, speaker that I've heard before in order to attend one that had a title that sounded good given by someone I haven't heard speak before. More often than not, it turns out to have been the wrong choice. I attribute this to two things: 1) I find the new speaker dispassionate, inexperienced, and sometimes, and (since I've been playing in my space long and intently enough) only moderately more knowledgeable than me; and 2) I repetitively find a great speaker has the ability to deliver new insight each and every time they speak, even when I've heard them speak before.

    @firewallender and @Jeremy both have excellent points. I do think speaking is like any other profession. It's fairly reasonable to expect food and lodging at paid conferences to be covered (even if by hosts as in @Suzanne's example). I also think it takes practice to hone the required skills and caliber of speaker can and should be reflected in compensation and caliber of event.

    However, I suspect many speakers see these gigs as opportunities to attract new business or investment, in which case they should shoulder some burden in their own attendance. If we don't pay citizens to find a job, should we pay speakers to woo potential new clients?

  • benholland

    I agree with a lot of what you said. I deal with this a fair amount at my job. I frequently receive speaker requests from conference organizers around the world. In some cases, it is certainly warranted to ask for an honorarium. If you are pretty high in demand, as my org's founder is, it make sense. But even then, the conferences should be considered carefully.

    I can't tell you how many great opportunities various members of our staff passed up because the gig didn't pay. Travel and Hotel should definitely be paid for, but the speaker should enjoy the opportunity to share his knowledge. If you're not passionate about it, don't do it.

    Anything in your backyard (CU Boulder conferences, for example) should almost always be done free of charge. Still, I struggle with encouraging the people I work with to get out there and talk about all the great things they're doing. The answer is always, “my work here is valuable, how much does it pay.” The rewards of meeting other like minded passionate people –to teach and to learn–are huge!

    It's an interesting topic. I'm going to bring it up at work today.

  • benholland

    Another point, and this might have already been made, but a ton of really amazing conferences do not have the budget to pay speakers. The expenses of organizing anything over 500+ people are tremendous. I saw this at a conference we put on in San Fran a couple weeks ago. If you're not stacked with huge sponsors, you're not going to be shelling out $30k for some dude who wants to talk about his sustainability plan, no matter what his credentials are.

  • Paid speakers are usually more prepared and better public speakers. Passionate people can sometimes overcome public speaking anxiety, but sometimes they can't. A lot of the non-paid-speaker events I attend are hit or miss, as far as quality of presentations. My personal preference? Definitely unpaid speakers. I just have that contrarian tendency.

    Between paid & unpaid speakers, there's also the “free ticket” speakers. For example, SXSW gives a free pass to anyone accepted to speak. What happens? Cheap people flood SXSW with submissions to get the free pass. Honestly, I think SXSW is the single worst event I have ever attended, presentation quality-wise.

  • So, let me get this straight… You want me to TEACH people information and skills that it took me years to get – but you think I should do that for free?

    Yeah. Not.

    I go to conferences that ARE community to give back and speak for them for free. But when you've got someone charging hundreds, even thousands of dollars, to participants? They are paying me for my time, my knowledge, and my experience. I'm sure as heck not going to make them tons of money as a “charitable” experience.

    I speak at BlogHer for free because that's a community that is one I give back to. But I won't ever speak for free for someone who just wants to profit off of information, experience, and knowledge that it took me years to acquire no matter how passionate I am about what I do.

    Sorry, but you missed the mark here 100% in my book Andrew.

  • So, let me get this straight… You want me to TEACH people information and skills that it took me years to get – but you think I should do that for free?

    Yeah. Not.

    I go to conferences that ARE community to give back and speak for them for free. But when you've got someone charging hundreds, even thousands of dollars, to participants? They are paying me for my time, my knowledge, and my experience. I'm sure as heck not going to make them tons of money as a “charitable” experience.

    I speak at BlogHer for free because that's a community that is one I give back to. But I won't ever speak for free for someone who just wants to profit off of information, experience, and knowledge that it took me years to acquire no matter how passionate I am about what I do.

    Sorry, but you missed the mark here 100% in my book Andrew.

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